Ukrainians and Russians are marking Orthodox Christmas under the shadow of war as reports of fighting come from the eastern Donbass region, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin unilaterally ordering his forces to halt the attacks.
Ukraine rejected a supposed 36-hour ceasefire from midday on Friday to mark Orthodox Christmas, with President Volodymyr Zelensky describing it as a ploy by Putin to buy time to reinforce troops who have suffered heavy losses this week.
Russia’s Defense Ministry insisted on Saturday that its forces had respected the ceasefire until midnight local time (21:00 GMT), which is 11:00 pm in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, but added that its army had repelled attacks by Kyiv forces in eastern Ukraine and killed dozens of Ukrainian soldiers on Friday.
In a Facebook post, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said that Russian troops shelled dozens of positions and settlements along the front line on Saturday.
President Zelensky said the attacks show that Moscow cannot be trusted.
“They were saying something about a supposed ceasefire. But the reality was that Russian shells hit Bakhmut and other Ukrainian positions again,” he said in a video address on Saturday.
No rest from battle
Humanitarian volunteer Vasil Liisin questioned the unilateral ceasefire.
“When Putin says there is a ceasefire, it’s actually the opposite: there is no ceasefire,” the 30-year-old told Reuters on Saturday.
We were shelled a lot yesterday. At night it was more or less calm. But that’s usually how it is: one day there’s shelling, the next day it’s calmer.
Olha, who declined to give her last name, poured scorn on the idea of any Christmas break since the Russian attack. “I think we’re being cheated, that’s pretty obvious to me,” the 75-year-old said.
“What else can I tell you? If someone makes a promise, that someone must keep it. Promises are made to be kept. I just don’t understand, what do they need?”
Russia said its troops returned artillery fire only when fired upon by Ukrainian forces.
Reuters was unable to establish the origin of the shells heard in Bakhmut.
The head of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region said on Saturday two civilians had been killed the previous day by Russian attacks in the hotly contested town of Bakhmut and in the north, Krasna Khora.
In the southern Kherson region, Governor Yaroslav Yanushevich said on Saturday that Russian forces fired 39 times on Friday, hitting houses and apartment buildings as well as a fire station. One person was killed and seven others were injured.
The Ukrainian governor of the frontline eastern Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai, said that in the first three hours of the supposed ceasefire, the Russians shelled Ukrainian positions 14 times and stormed a settlement three times.
The UK Ministry of Defence, a leading provider of military aid to Ukraine, said on Saturday that “fighting continued at a routine level over the Orthodox Christmas period”.
Putin cut a lonely figure
In Moscow, Putin, 70, cut a lonely figure as he stood alone at a service in a Kremlin church, the Cathedral of the Annunciation, to mark Orthodox Christmas.
On Saturday, Putin praised the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting Moscow’s forces fighting in Ukraine in a Christmas message designed to rally people behind his vision of a modern Russia.
In his message, released by the Kremlin, accompanied on the Kremlin’s website by an image of him standing in front of religious icons, Putin made it clear that he sees the Russian Orthodox Church as an important stabilizing force for society at a time of what he described as a historic clash between Russia and the West on Ukraine and other issues.
“It is a deep satisfaction to note the enormous constructive contribution of the Russian Orthodox Church and other Christian denominations to the unification of society, the preservation of our historical memory, the education of young people and the strengthening of the institution of the family,” Putin said.
Historical service in Kyiv
At the 1,000-year-old Lavra Cathedral in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, Saturday’s Christmas service was held in Ukrainian – instead of Russian – for the first time in decades, underscoring how Ukraine is seeking to shed Moscow’s remaining influence over religious, cultural and economic affairs. life in the country.
Security was tight at the ceremony as worshipers had their passports checked and had to pass through metal detectors. Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7.
In Russia and Ukraine, Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion and has been seen as one of the strongest ties connecting the two nations.
Ukrainians have already largely turned their backs on the Russian Orthodox Church, whose head Patriarch Kirill supported the invasion.
Ukraine’s government on Thursday took over management of the revered Lavra complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, from the Russian Orthodox Church and allowed the Ukrainian church to use it for the Christmas service.
Anatole Lieven of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Government said the Russian Orthodox Church acts as a “pillar of the Russian state” in keeping with its ancient identity.
“[It is] a central force in Russian nationalism,” he said, adding that the church’s support for the war had created great anger among Ukrainians.
The adviser to the Ukrainian president Mykhailo Podoliak called on Saturday Moscow ceasefire “fake” and accused Russian troops of firing across the contact line.
The United States, which announced $3.75 billion in defense aid to Ukraine on Friday, called the ceasefire a “cynical” ploy.
Putin’s order to halt the fighting came after Moscow suffered its worst loss of life to date, with Ukrainian attacks killing at least 89 soldiers in the eastern town of Makeevka.
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